HEY GRANDMA, CAN I LIVE WITH YOU? GRANDPARENTS AND THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC

Louise Stanger Ed.D., LCSW CDWF, CIP and Roger Porter

The other day I received a phone call from Helen. She and her husband Rick were beside themselves after learning their daughter, a 42-year-old PhD student, had relapsed into drug addiction. The couple, in their late-sixties, were not only charged with finding help again for their struggling daughter, but taking on the complex job of raising their two grandchildren – a precocious 11-year-old girl and a reluctant 16-year-old boy. Later in the week, I got another call from George and Lisa, a retired couple who found themselves dropping their twin grandbabies off at kindergarten. After the parents of the twins were caught dealing drugs and leaving them unattended and uncared for, George and Lisa thought it best not to let the twins enter the foster care system and took on the role of parent once more. As the opioid epidemic explodes, calls like these are becoming more commonplace.

While the opioid epidemic has garnered plenty of press and reported startling statistics such as white middle-aged men’s life expectancy dipping for the first time in American history (according to the New York Times), there are other consequences yet to be seen.
A troubling new trend emerging is asking grandparents to step in as caretakers. Increasingly, grandparents are taking on the role of raising grandchildren as a result of their adult children traveling in and out of rehab and the general inability of parents’ experiencing a substance abuse disorder to take care of their children.

According to PBS NewsHour, in 2005 there were 2.5 million children living with their grandparents; that number jumped to 2.9 million in 2015. In total, there are 13 million children living with their grandparents. Grandparents are stepping in and playing the role of mom and dad once more. Maria Moissades, head of the Office of the Child Advocate, a Massachusetts’s-based foster care program, recently summed up the issue: “You’ve got grandparents who thought they were going to spend their retirement fishing and traveling. Now they’re raising [as many as] five grandkids.”

Like the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80s and 90s, child welfare officials are reporting rises in grandparents raising grandchildren due to over-prescribing, aggressive pharmaceutical company advertising, and the subsequent rise in heroin and other opioid drug use. As of today, 2.4 million Americans are addicted to opioids.

Since more and more parents are experiencing substance abuse or are in a recovery program, foster care and adoption services see grandparents as the first option for placing a child in a good home. Grandparents, often the closest kin beyond the parents, are the best match because in order “to minimize the trauma and help [the child] feel some normalcy, you obviously want to seek out whoever is closest to that child,” writes Angela Sausser, Executive Director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. However, this population faces financial challenges as they take on the new brood.

Even if grandparents are the obvious choice for child care, research shows the financial stresses are taking a toll. For instance, 21% of grandparents caring for their grandchildren full-time live below the poverty line, and there is a 49% unemployment rate  for grandmothers (34% for grandfathers) raising their grandkids according to Generations United, an organization committed to finding safe and healthy homes for children. Regrettably, there are few programs available to grandparents outside of the foster care system (federal and state laws require individuals seeking guardianship to be licensed in the system to receive benefits). Licensing can be a lengthy hassle and arduous issue, which can even lead to grandparents needing to testify against their offspring. It appears licensing grandparents as foster care providers is not a solution in and of itself. Other states are exploring this issue and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois has introduced a bill into Congress that would make it easier for grandparents caring for children to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Dot Thibodeaux, president and founder of the grassroots support group Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Information Center of Louisiana, writes that “most of us [grandparents] are on social security. When the family grows, the Social Security does not. You have to make do with whatever you were getting, and that’s kind of hard.”

The physical and emotional aspects of grandparents raising grandchildren are swelling too. Research from Generations United found that 26% of grandparents have a disability. Already at an age – typically 50s-70s – when physical ailments and doctor visits are commonplace, grandparents can find it particularly taxing to rear a rambunctious and energetic child, especially when it’s been fifteen or so years since their own children moved out. As such, they may feel out of touch with the latest trends in caregiving. The New York Times recently interviewed grandparents from all parts of the country who are donning the cape of parenthood once more. Angela Cimino, a grandparent from Nashua, NH says that, “my friends have kids who are grown. They say, ‘Come with us. We’re going to Vegas. We’re going down to the cape. Can you get away for the weekend?’ No. I can’t just up and go.” These conflicting situations may lead toward a grandparent resenting their own child.

In addition to taking on the role of parent, grandparents may find it difficult communicating with their grandchildren who are generations apart. It’s important to set rules and expectations in the beginning, however, when the honeymoon fades, the stresses of day-to-day living can mount. Montana State University and the Empowering Parents Program developed these parenting tips:

● A united parenting effort. Parents and grandparents may clash over parenting styles. It’s important for you to talk with your adult children and agree on what’s best for the grandchildren, leaving behind egos and philosophies. Compromises will help all parties involved.
● Set limits and boundaries for birth parents. If the situation is that grandparents take legal guardianship of the grandchildren due to parent addiction, abuse or neglect, the grandchildren will likely come into the situation with their own set of attitudes and ways of coping with the negative environment they were in. As such, grandparents must take on the role of primary parent and the birth parents need to take on a secondary role as they get help. Set boundaries and limit birth parent visits until they demonstrate being a responsible parent again.
● Set limits and boundaries for grandchildren. Be firm yet fair with your grandchildren. Although you may encounter the “you’re not my parent” argument, sticking to the rules you put in place will maintain authority. Remember that your role is caretaker now and you must be that example to your grandchildren at all times.

Avoid making judgments about the children’s parents, maintain authority as caretaker, and stick to it.

● A firm line sends the right message. If you find the grandchildren are physically abusive, call the police. In some cases, children are destructive, set fires, and physically hurt other children at school. If this is the case, it’s not your job to take on the abuse or mitigate the circumstances. And taking on this behavior won’t benefit the child in the long run. There are consequences for this type of behavior and alerting the police will send a firm message to the grandchild acting out.
● Focus on the positives. You have the best opportunity to be
an influential part of your grandchild’s life. Revel in the happy and fun times that come with caregiving to get you through
the difficult times. As Bonnie Martin, a grandmother from Vineland, NJ, tells the New York Times: “[My grandson] gave me something positive to focus on, rather than the heartaches and sadness and grief. I have a renewed sense of hope, that I’m doing something worthwhile.”

Other resources available to grandparents include the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Visit this website and click on the GrandFacts or GrandFamilies links, which take you to useful fact sheets for grandparents. They provide information about support services, resources, programs, benefits, laws and policies available to help grandparents fill the caregiving need. Grandparents can also visit the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren link from the USA. gov website to find grandparent programs in your state. In addition to visiting these websites, grandparents may contact Social Security, Medicaid, and the US Health Department for more ways to get help. And don’t forget to turn to your community — public schools and churches are often the strongest support systems for families in need.

or more information and ways to get help, check out Generations United, an organization committed to providing safe homes for children. Visit their website at www.gu.org.

Dr. Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator and interventionist. She uses an invitational intervention approach with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.

Louise publishes in many magazines and other media. The San Diego Business Journal listed her as one of the “Top 10 Women Who Mean Business” and is considered by Quit Alcohol as one of the Top 10 Interventionists in the country. She speaks  all over the country and trains staff for treatment providers and develops original Family programs. She is the recipient of the 2014 Foundations Fan Favorite Speaker Award and the 2016 Joseph L. Galletta Spirit of Recovery Award. Her book Falling Up: A Memoir of Renewal is available on Amazon and Learn to Thrive: An Intervention Handbook on her website at www. allaboutinterventions.com.

Roger Porter is a writer and educator. He received two Bachelor degrees – marketing and film – from the University of Texas at Austin. He writes screenplays and teleplays, and when he’s not doing that he tutors middle and high school students.